Tensions animate this memoir of a happy Mennonite girlhood.
Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World by Shirley Hershey Showalter. Herald Press, 271 pp.
The sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.— the epigraph for Blush, taken from Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings
Though Shirley means “bright meadow,” fitting for a “plain” (Mennonite) girl growing up in the 1950s and ’60s on a Pennsylvania dairy farm, Shirley Hershey Showalter was actually named after Shirley Temple. The divided roots of her first name epitomize the tensions that animate her memoir, Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World.
Showalter’s faith community both nurtured and frustrated her as she sought to reconcile its conservative values with her desire for gaudier self-expression. Caught between her plain church and the glittering world, in her discomfort Showalter often blushed. The depiction in the life of a fortunate Mennonite girl of this everlasting human conflict, essentially between communal obligation and individual desire, is what makes her story both universal and timeless.
Showalter has said her riskiest words in Blush are its first:
Ever since I was little, I wanted to be big. Not just big as in tall, but big as in important, successful, influential. I wanted to be seen and listened to. I wanted to make a splash in the world.
Indeed she has. Although it covers her first eighteen years, Blush indicates how Showalter has been able to live anchored in her Mennonite faith while navigating as an adult in the wider world—including earning a PhD in American civilization, becoming an English professor, the president of a Mennonite college, and a foundation executive.
Mennonites arose as the followers of Menno Simmons (1496–1561), a Dutch priest who joined the Anabaptist movement. Anabaptists, or rebaptizers, started as a group “who withdrew from both the Roman Catholic Church and the newly Protestant churches,” explains Showalter in her memoir’s glossary. “The practice of rebaptizing adults and of refusal to baptize children was seen as both a threat to the established church and the state.”
The rigorous twin pillars of the Mennonite faith, as Showalter experienced it near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, were nonconformity and nonresistance. As well, she was trained to be a “beacon of kindness” for others.
Showalter’s mother, Barbara, also grew up on a Mennonite farm, surrounded by brothers. In lieu of a sister, she yearned for a Shirley Temple doll. In high school she was attractive, a buoyant singer, actress, and aspiring writer. She was late, at age 19, to assume her faith’s outward symbols, plain dress and, for women, a prayer covering. Though she would raise her daughter in the church, and affirmed farm life as her best and only life, she’d been a bold and ambitious young woman; her unrealized early ambitions “would incubate a yearning” in her daughter. For the chapter on her parents’ marriage, Showalter takes an epigraph from Carl Jung: “The greatest force in the life of any child is the unlived lives of their parents.”
Showalter’s father, Richard, tall and handsome, was the son of a farmer and likewise became a farmer. But his father had been harsh, and buying his family’s farm worsened his pain, for his father became his landlord. Richard loved farming, however, and indulged in a taste, shared by some others in his congregation, for fancy cars. When his daughter was in high school he bought her a sporty used Studebaker convertible—though it was black, which was “the kind of joke he liked.” She writes of him:
Daddy had no greater goal, after years of dating and driving eye-catching cars, than to become as successful a farmer as his father had been. There was a little spite, a little competition, and a lot of neediness in his yearning. He also wanted to hold his place in the unbroken Mennonite line of Hersheys who had always served the church.
I am heir of all these desires.
Forty families in her church knew her and the particulars of her young life. She basked in this attention, and sometimes shed a joyous tear when singing hymns. But she also loved pretty dresses, jewelry, and fancy hairstyles; joining the church was a choice she would make, but it wasn’t trivial. Immersed in a wholesome, loving, and idealistic community, she could not fail to notice its feet of clay. Its obsession with sinful pride might stifle the individual; its nonconformity to the world might mask within-sect conformity; its patriarchal and sex-segregated structure could devolve into simple sexism.
Yet its values also provided seventh-grader Shirley with the willpower to support John F. Kennedy as president in 1960—breaking with almost everyone she knew—and gave 17-year-old Shirley the courage to protest a new bishop’s stricter dress code for teenage girls. The older women of the church were also appalled by the man one Sunday when he refused communion to a girl whose dress or hairstyle offended him. Showalter watched the women “start to breathe in rhythm, their eyes wide” at the cruelty of his haughty act:
Without knowing it, we were participating in a crisis of leadership larger than our own congregation. The church’s visual separation from the world had been slowly eroding over decades as the culture around us became harder to resist. What had been taking place in an evolutionary manner for a long time only became obvious because of many who wanted to reverse the trend.
If the bishop could refuse the cup of communion to a baptized member of the church, what would come next?
What happened was that the reactionary bishop wasn’t happy, either, and moved on. (What happened eventually was that Showalter’s branch of the Mennonite Church relaxed its strictures regarding plain dress and prayer coverings.) Showalter’s outsider’s perspective, and her desire to find an authentic self within her religious tradition, grew as she moved through the mainstream school system; by high school, she was one of only three Mennonite girls among the 144 students in her graduating class. On the one hand a typical teenager, feisty and full of life, her Mennonite prohibitions included dancing, television, and movies. She sat out her gym class’s unit on dancing, watching with one other plain girl from wooden bleachers, feeling lonely.
Yet the complex threads of her upbringing met her own gifts to kindle perceptiveness and a scholarly bent:
I began to see that identity formation always includes an “us” and a “them.” It’s easy to see all sweetness in “us” and all sour in “them.”
Blush is rich in metaphor and works this sweet-sour one well—including in two chapters on food (and there are recipes in the back)—and is informed by deft use of historical context and enlivened by family photographs. Showalter even acknowledges Native Americans, those who lived on the land before her ancestors and whose stories were largely lost along with their villages, cleared with the forest to make space for settlers and their farms. Showalter explains in a blog post that all proceeds from the sale of Blush will go to support the Longhouse Project, the construction of a Native American dwelling by the Hans Herr Museum in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
If I have emphasized the tensions in Showalter’s account of a happy childhood, it’s because Blush shows how such pressures forged her as a person and as a leader—and because she deploys them so artfully as a writer. For all its impressive facets, Blush also achieves the virtues of a true memoir, conveying Showalter’s lived experience in the wisdom of her singular voice.
Next: An interview about Blush with Shirley Hershey Showalter.